Do you ever stop and think about the fact that there's four or five companies who could just completely fuck up your life with a ban?
There's a lot of focus right now on the power of social media companies in particular to hinder civil participation, and it's a legitimate concern.
Personally, I think they have wielded their power too cautiously, and I am particularly worried about the extent to which manifestly extreme views have become regularised through the refusal to take action against their proponents.
There's a popular XKCD cartoon which suggests that private corporations banning troublemakers is no different from, say, a restaurant asking you to leave because you're making a scene.
I don't agree with that argument. I think the scale and importance of a couple of these private corporations is large enough that it is manifestly different from being thrown out of Sexy Fish for wearing a tracksuit. I just also happen to think that the social-media-driven resurgence of fascism in the last decade is serious enough that its proponents really should have their civic participation hindered.
But that's not actually what I want to talk about today. The free speech/deplatforming/antifascist/cancel culture argument has been done to death, and the Harper's letter is mostly just embarrassing. It's too vague to really argue against, and everyone is really just discussing what they know about the prior beliefs of the signatories anyway.
Instead, I want to talk about a different blow to civic participation: the experience of being algorithmically shut out of one of the four or five companies who dominate the twentieth century.
One of the quirks of being a journalist is that you often wind up doing the work of a public ombudsman for faceless organisations which have no real accountability. And one of the sad outcomes of that is endless communication with people who you can't really help, but who desperately need help from someone.
The most common example for me is the email, received about once a month, from someone who has been permanently banned from Facebook due to an algorithmic quirk. For these people, the ban isn't a free speech issue. They weren't attempting to make controversial points, there was no wider culture which disagreed with their right to speak. Typically, they got a little too into posting-as-campaigning, or fell into a multi-level-marketing scheme, or just shared a link a few too many times, and were identified as spam.
And then they're just shut down. Their original account is gone, and any attempt to re-register is blocked automatically. If they're lucky, they know someone IRL who can at least get a message to their pals online. If they're unlucky – and the ones who write to me are – then their pals online are their only pals.
It's like being struck with a curious reverse amnesia: you can remember everyone, and still see their public pages, but to them, you just… stopped posting one day.
Facebook is bad enough, but at least there the harm is non-monetary. Ultimately, the site does not control your friendships, and with work it's possible to rebuild what you've lost. Other companies are more directly destructive.
Take Amazon, for example. The site is known for its famous customer-first approach. It will issue refunds no-questions-asked, honour pre-orders at the lowest price before purchase, and allow you to mark packages as non-delivered with the click of a button. Those affordances are necessary, of course, given the absolute lack of quality control from Amazon's part; it has to honour the lowest price for a preorder, for instance, because the algorithmically-set prices have a nasty habit of moving in ridiculous ways for no comprehensible reason.
And it pushes its delivery people so hard that even ringing a doorbell is too much time wasted which could be used to hit the quantity of deliveries required to make your rent. So parcels are left on doorsteps, or building lobbies, and then stolen, and Amazon refunds.
Fine. It's not a stupid way to run a business. But the problem is that all of those measures are open to fraud, which means Amazon also has a nasty habit of banning people for life if they have too many parcels stolen.
Again, there is no human oversight on those decisions, and again, there is no appeal. And while an Amazon ban is more an inconvenience than a strike at the heart of your civic life – the company does not, yet, actually control the entirety of retail – it does have one immediate effect: all your Amazon devices are bricked. You cannot use an Echo, Kindle or Fire tablet with a banned Amazon account; you cannot transfer your books, apps or movies to a new Amazon account, even if you were allowed to make one.
It's as though Waterstones was able to wrongly accuse you of shoplifting, march into your house and set fire to your bookshelves.
Interestingly, there's one area of tech that is extremely aware of this effect of account bans: Gaming. Both Microsoft and Sony explicitly warn that your console may become non-functional if you are given an account ban, and use that as a cudgel to clamp down on cheating and piracy on their platforms. But the two companies are also significantly more responsible with their bans as a result. It's extremely rare for a user to lose access to their account as a first warning, and the appeals process does involve a human operator at the other end who is able to patiently explain that no, you are not allowed to have the N-word in your username and no, changing the the -er to -a doesn't get around that.